Flash Fiction: The Watch

Time ground on. It chipped down on the country of Eristae, its memory, its anger. As the years flowed through them, people forgot their anger at the imperial ships and new rules. They grew familiar with the tithes and the soldiers on street corners. Their daughters married those street corner soldiers, and their grandchildren left for foreign schools. The next generation returned to the ancient dukedoms and quiet fiefs with hard accents, soft hands, and voracious intentions. They abandoned the country groves and seaside villages of their birth to build up cities in the image of imperial metropolises.

And a century after the first imperial fleet landed on their southern banks, with a foreign official in every office, dean’s seat, and city council, the peoples flocked into the streets to celebrate their newfound dependence. Parades and floats coursed through the main cities, streaming banners that snapped in-time to the peoples’ cheers. The empire unfolded its arms and took ancient Eristae into its progressive embrace.

Cole tried to keep to himself that night. While the city of Kallais streamed around him, broiling with dance, drink, and music, he glowered his way into a corner of the most unpopular tavern he could find.

It worked for a time, well into Cole’s fourth ale. But the streets eventually poured their way in to the dirty little bar. Cole shouldered open the tavern door before he broke the nose of a loud patriot. Though he shoved a few shoulders in the process, Cole got into the night air without starting a brawl.

The streets were strewn with the aftermath of the celebrations, but the air was clean and growing quieter by the hour. Cole left the stuffy taverns to the new imperial citizens and used the sound of waves to guide him. He walked, using the winding streets and narrow staircases running the city to burn the alcohol from his veins. Beneath the foot of the bay wall, Cole looked up. The thick stone walls curled around the city protectively, solid and wide enough for three armored men to walk abreast.

Cole climbed a stair and flashed an ancient badge. The old design and crest should have had him stopped and questioned, had the watchman been sober enough to protest. But the outdated token got Cole to the top of the wall, where he set elbows against stone and watched the city settle. As the dark deepened in the sky and then eventually began to glow in the east, the last of the imperial chants and cheers died entirely. The city could have been his again, as it had been before, stretching out at the end of a long graveyard shift.

Flags would come and go, as would the people who sat behind desks and on thrones, but Cole knew he would always come here, to watch over his city, his country.

Terribly late, this thief ran off with More than 1/2 Mad‘s line to serve the Legal Theft Project. This is the result of that heist, prompt, and challenge. 

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Beneath The Breastbone.

His skin was freshly washed and it caught on the latex of her gloves as she arranged his limbs. Familiar scents of soap, bleach, and inert flesh permeated her medical mask. A young man, feathery wet hair, flat brown eyes, twenty-seven with lines around his eyes, waited for her. Laid out, bared, she could see his ribs pressing up beneath his skin. She dropped her hand to hover over the waves. The plateau of his chest was firm, all lean muscle. Perhaps not a healthy man in life, but a beautiful one in death.

A hitched breath caved her mask as she leaned over him.  She paused to check its elastic tight against her cheek and the plastic cap covering her hair. The plastic, paper, and latex kept little pieces of herself from betraying them, their time, their togetherness.

She held herself there, parallel over him, feeling the emptiness of the body under her. He was alone now, a mirror to the lonely ache beneath her breastbone. When he had searing skin and a heartbeat, his smile and soft words hadn’t soothed the emptiness in her, they were only hers to borrow. Someday he would have taken his warmth and left. Now, silent and growing cold, they could be alone together.

Until the chime of the phone broke from the purse in the corner of the hotel room. She snapped her head to the side, breath moving the mask in and out with shallow breaths, a paper heart beating at her mouth.

She rose at the waist and picked her way off him, careful where her body weighted the bedspread. Her plastic wrapped feet crinkled on the carpet. A quick snap of latex, a crumple of paper, she freed her hand and mouth and picked up the phone, dangling it next to her ear. “Remy?”

She used her time listening to calm her breath. “You got the right number, sorry I change it so much, its the travel.” Bent at the knees in a crouch, she held very still so her scrubs wouldn’t rustle. The person on the other side of the line continued.

“Brunch, yes, don’t worry about it. We’ll go another time, its really fine. I’m in town for a while.” She smiled, fondness crinkling the corner of her eyes. “Can’t wait to catch up. Bye Remy.”

She left the phone in her bag, found new gloves, reset her mask and bowed to her feet like a dancer. The man still waited on the bed, still and entirely hers. She returned, gliding above him, never touching, just feeling the profound emptiness she could share.

This weeks music challenge is born from Florence + The Machine’s song Hunger. As I was challenged by Raw Rambles make sure to check out her original here.  

Flash Fiction: Sticky Fire

Flames danced up her sleeve, and she sighed as she put them out. Or tried to, the sickly green fire clung to Sen’s fingers like spiderweb. From there they rushed angrily across her golden skin and up her other sleeve. “Oh bother,” Sen sighed again, this time with real frustration as the top of her gown shriveled away.

The battle still flowed, screams and metal all flashing bright beneath the sunlight. Red had only begun to soak the ground. But she’d collected and stilled a small audience of both enemy and friendly soldiers.

Sen broke her belt with a jerk and tore the remains of the dress away from her skin. The fabric still burned in her fingers, the acrid flames fighting helplessly to gain purchase on flesh that would not burn. She threw the smoldering garment to the ground and looked up, now naked and very annoyed.

The man who’d broken the vial across her arm was shaking his head with dumb denial. She raised her chin to his towering height, stalked forward, reached up, and snapped his neck with her unblemished hand. The circle of soldiers jerked back with a uniform cry.

Sen smiled at them and all, hers and the other side’s, backed away slowly from the naked goddess. The battle offered other, less disconcerting, ways to die. Sen purred with pleasure and carved her own way through the chaos, skin bared.

Another week, another successful heist. I stole the first line from a certain librarian as part of the Legal Theft Project. Check out the original here. 

Sleep Through The Night

And I look to the west, the moon’s in the sky
I wanna get at least that high

My readied smile slipped away once Nuka’s breathing deepened. Sure that my friend was truly asleep, I worked my jaw like an actor warming lines and slipped out of my bedroll, cautious not to disturb his. The care was not necessary, Nuka’s agitation had run him raw all day and he slept solid. I was surprised he’d made it to his bedroll at all, and not simply collapsed on the road in a scowling heap.

The night air hanging over the bog was thick with croaking frogs, rotting green, and a hint of cold that kept off the worst of the thrumming insects. I took the cotton-bound book from my pack and a leather herb pouch from my discarded coat. With the firebugs bobbing along over the grimy water and the moss softening the trees into hazy watercolor, the night was too alive to waste tossing in a bedroll.

Soon reclining over a precious bit of dry root and stone, I lit the twist of herbs and let the fire shrink my pupils. Everything went dark except the glow, until the smoke hit my tongue and I waved the match out. The night unfurled for me in muted greens and blacks, each darker than the last until I was sure the void itself waited in the trees.

I enjoyed the heaviness settling in my fingers by running my thumb down the book’s spine. I might read a little in the sickly light of the fire bugs, or I might not.

Up in the sky, above the weeping branches, the moon rose in the west, surrounded of course, by stars. I frowned at them both. Someone needed to figure this shit out, I doubted it was going to be me.

Been a long time gone, living out on the coast
It’s a long way back from the edge of the cosmos

Some say soldiers find their beds too soft after they return home. This is something like that. I am not used to her breath on my neck, or her fingers resting on my chest. Curled next to me beneath the covers of our bed, my wife radiates heat like a stoked forge. Usually this lulls me into rest quickly enough.

Not always though. Staring up at the ceiling in the dark, tonight I drew her fingers gently off my chest so I could test the weight there. I clutched a hand over my breastbone and searched beneath my skin for reassurance.

My wife curled around my pillow when I left the bed. Clothes retrieved from the dresser, boots on at the door, I stepped into the yard and hissed. The isle gets cold at night and I’m still not used to it. Far away,  almost hidden by the overgrown hills, I saw the top of the manor house. Light flickered in its windows.

I filled my lungs with the cold and made my way to the forge, certainty growing with every step. No leash, taut or slack, tied me anymore. No distant man, lord, or god held my soul hostage.  Even stuck on an island lost in the sea and assembling a new life from the wreckage of centuries, the only thing coiled angry in my chest was me.

You chained my life to an ancient master
Will the curse be reversed if I say it backwards?   

Purple seeped into the pitch of the night sky. With the glass balcony doors thrown wide, I could see the full canvas, from the tips of the gold-domed city to the black heavens. My tower afforded me an aerial landscape of  city, provided I stood from my desk and wandered out to the balcony to receive it.

Tonight though, the balcony doors were open so the night air could cut the damp warmth of early summer. I had work to do before the sun rose and the empire’s armies began to march. The gods did not concern themselves with train-car capacity, tides, or how many lemons kept mortals from getting scurvy over long voyages. They left that to us, and so we oversaw their soldiers, their worshipers, their cities. And the return for this service, an eternity to do it.

The narrow bed still waited for me in the corner, stuffed unlovingly between two monstrous bookshelves. Sleep was always an intruder here, forestalling breakthroughs and progress with paltry biological demands for rest. I may have welcomed the respite had someone called me to it, perhaps gently or hungrily taken my hand and drawn me down with them, then I would have abandoned my work for the night. But no one would do so tonight, or possibly ever again.

The pages began to blend as my eyes blurred between application, transcript, and docket. Above, the sky lightened and beneath the palace stirred.

[Good Morning, Raven. Have you slept?] The voice touched down in my head. The gods were awake.

You told me you’re never gonna die
How am I supposed to sleep through the night?

Raw Rambles and I are seeing Lord Huron live in only a couple weeks, so our music challenge this week is to the song Secret of Life, off their newest album, Vide Noir. Check out Raw Rambles blog for her post.  

 

Rules and Opportunity

Maj flew into the room, thin arms tensed like steel cables. She stopped on the rug, torn between throwing herself on the bed or shattering the vanity’s ornate mirror. She didn’t get a chance for either as Desri hurried in after her.

“So,” Desri started and reached tentatively for her half-sisters shoulder. “That could have gone better.”

“Could have gone better? It couldn’t have gone worse.” Maj ducked her shoulder like a cat that didn’t want to be pet. She stepped back and faced Desri, trembling. “You were there, you heard them. I have no talent. That’s it.”

“Maj you’re brilliant, it’s not it.” Desri persisted, catching Maj’s delicate hand. She was stronger than her petite half-sister and able to pull her close into an embrace. Maj’s curls tickled her nose but Desri held on until Maj slumped and gave an ugly sob. “Shh, you’ve gotten top marks in everything else, what are they going to do?” Desri hummed.

The answer came the next morning when Maj’s things were packed for her. Her crisp plain frocks were folded into suitcases, but the servant left any evening gowns and dancing slippers in the closet. She was told to change into sensibly-soled boots, as her soft embroidered shoes would not survive the mud and damp of the lower districts.

After five years in her father’s home, Maj was escorted to a carriage that would take her down to her mother’s house. Desri watched her go from the upstairs window, round eyes helplessly trying to catch Maj’s gaze. The carriage door shut and the horses started their clopping pace down the drive. Desri’s harsh sigh fogged the window.

“Don’t sulk,” Desri’s mother said from the study’s chair behind her. “We gave Maj more opportunity than most in her position ever have in their lives. She couldn’t stay here as anything other than a servant. Could you imagine wounding her pride so?”

“This has nothing to do with your pride?” Desri asked, not turning from the window.  Maj had never given much respect towards Desri’s mother, the woman who’d overlooked her husband’s indiscretion to let a bastard girl learn alongside her own daughter. But even the best books and tutors the city offered could not force magic aptitude and its protections. Still, banishment seemed harsh to Desri, even if Maj had been born and grown in the lower districts.

“No. This has to do with rules.” The whisper of skirt on rug indicated her mother leaving the room. Desri closed the curtains and left as well. She took the stairs down towards the their house’s great library. Her own examinations were upcoming, and she had almost as much to lose as Maj.

This is a post for Legal Theft as I have stolen the line “That could have gone better.” from More Than 1/2 Mad. 

The Duke’s Cat

Beneath the clockwork streets of Trinity lay the city’s bones. The countless building projects, infrastructure updates, and new efficiency standards that modernized the empire’s illustrious capitol turned its underworld into a twisting warren of rigorously maintained sewer systems, ancient alleyways, and built-upon history.

Here, below the streets and between crumbling stone and plaster, sharp-eyed men and women met to discuss the future of Trinity. They jabbed fingers at maps and argued over buzzing surveyors lamps. Their rumbling discontent never boiled past low tones. No one really knew how the empire’s god-kings seemed to hear and see so much.

Most of the rebels were barrel-built with thick limbs. They bore the rough hands and occasional scars of the empire least valued peoples, the laborers, farmers, and unskilled craftsman. Of the rebels though, a few were nimble-minded students with soft palms and monologues of hegemony, subversion, and moral imperative. The rebels suffered these lofty words for the heavy purses and family fortunes that came attached. A rebellion only lasted as long as rebels could eat.

Of the students, Ari was the most recent addition to the movement. He spoke less and listened far more than the others, prone to jest and the occasional game of dice. This endeared the willowy youth to most, but not all.

It was over one of these games, as Ari teased out a bitter life story from an ex-farmer, that Rolf, one of the laborers who’d never liked Ari’s wide-eyed inquisitiveness,  interrupted with a growl. The farmer stopped before she could explain the manner and location to which she’d been conscripted, and Ari blinked at Rolf.

“Shut up,” Rolf’s glare grew when it shifted from her to Ari. It stayed fixed on the student, twisted in the ugly yellow lamps they used to light the tunnels. “No need to blather when you don’t need to. Never know who could be listening.”

“Just me really,” Ari said and collected his dice for the next throw. The farmer spooked, gathered her winnings and left with an excuse about checking dinner. Ari shrugged and offered the dice to Rolf.

Rolf twisted the side of his nose and drew out a thick-bladed knife from his belt. The larger man began to oil the blade, a rag wrapped around his knobbed fingers. Ari put away his dice. “Who do you think is listening?” Ari asked.

“You’ve heard of the Chosen.” Rolf stated and flicked his eyes up to catch Ari’s expression and found it casually curious. “They are the god-kings’ generals, their apprentices, their spies.” Rolf rolled the last word of his tongue into the stale air. “They’re immortal, can’t be killed, immune to pain. Demons.”   

“And you think–”

“Don’t lead my words.” Rolf snapped again, looking for support from the others. Many of the camp were looking at them now.  Rolf raised his voice, bolstered by the serious expressions. “We have a spy. We all know it. The guards have swept these tunnels three times this week. We need to cut this spy out, even if it’s one of them.” Rolf gestured with the blade.

“But, like, with actual knives.” Ari snorted at the brandished weapon. Around them the tension broke with a few smiles. “I thought they were immortal.”

“They are. The Warlord’s jewel, the Duke’s iron dog, the Mage’s bird. There’s others. You see them around if you work in this infernal city long enough. They don’t die, don’t age. Makes it easier to pick them out if you’ve seen them before.” Rolf hadn’t let his eyes off Ari as he spoke, tracing the lines of Ari’s delicate jaw and crooked nose. Rolf’s mouth grew so tight it trembled. “And I’ve been in this gilt city a long time.”

Rolf shattered a lamp when he lunged at Ari. The student yelped and fell backwards in his chair, only to have his shirtfront caught by Rolf’s rough hands. Rolf jerked the thick-bladed knife deep into Ari’s belly. The youth gasped without breath, eyes white around their edges as he hung, bug-eyed, in Rolf’s grasp.

Rolf threw the Ari down and watched Ari clutch at his stomach with growing confusion. Ari twitched a final spasm, spat blood, and then went glassy-eyed on the crumbling floor.

Agast students and Rolf’s stony faced companions stared at the grisly scene. Rolf gestured at Ari’s corpse with the knife, “I saw him, this one, when I was little, he was as smarmy and smirking then as he–” Rolf stammered, gaze darting between the rebels and his victim. A pool of blood spread from Ari’s body, cast yellow like dark oil in the surveyors lamps.

The farmer who’d told Ari her story earlier shook her head. “Chosen are immortal, you just killed some kid who was trying to help us.” She and the other rebels shared a glance. The remaining students who were beginning to flinch towards the exits.

The rebels left Ari’s body to the pests and scavengers that lived in the undercity. It was a sad thing, but Rolf was half-frantic and they had work to do. All were nervous about the frayed whispering among the students and the hateful looks sent towards Rolf’s back.

Once the clanking of packs and the light of the surveyor’s lamps had vanished down the old tunnels, darkness fell over the abandoned camp. Ari’s body spasmed and breathed again with a bloody gasp that sounded like, “ta-da.”

“You did not mean to do that.” The voice of the Duke thrummed in his head with the pulse of his own, now renewed, heartbeat.

“I did. Planned the whole thing.” He murmured to the plaster digging into his cheek and the god-king inside his head. The man who’d recently been called Ari folded himself into a fetal position and waited for the agony in his gut to subside.

The Duke’s presence hovered dryly concerned until his Chosen could push himself onto his knees. The god-king’s magic kept his body working, but Ari pressed a hand to his stomach as he stood and looked blankly into the dark. “Dissent sowed, rebels dissolving. Now how do I get out of here?”

“Planned the whole thing?” 

Ari ignored the voice, flicking his head to clear the hair that had fallen over his eyes. He started down the tunnel, going slowly on uneven footsteps.

“Go left.” 

Ari’s mouth flickered with a smile and did as the Duke instructed.

A thief this week, as I am most weeks. Thanks to the Legal Theft Project and CC’s dialogue line “But, like, with actual knives.”, I managed to write a bit this round. See CC’s original here.  

Yellow Lanterns

“Don’t bother the manor folk.” His mother tugged Alex out the vine choked gate, her hand tightly curled around his small one. Alex dug his heels into the muddy path and flopped his entire six-year-old self back with rag-doll dissent.

“Why?” Alex howled the mournful word into the evening sky as he was dragged down the towards the proper village paths. The mismatched arches, needle-spires, and squat sides of the strange house vanished behind the steep hillocks.

Alex’s mother heaved him up with arms thick from harvest work. “Hush, they don’t want any of your nonsense,” she scolded into his hair. Alex turned over her shoulder, round eyes fixed back the way they’d come. Below them, the village’s yellow lanterns began to show one by one in the valley.

******

“We aren’t supposed to bother the manor folk–” Zak’s said distantly, as if half-remembering the rule. Alex blew out a breath in response. Both of them watched the manor’s window between its soft blue curtains. From outside, bellies pressed to the evening’s wet grass of the nearest hill, they could see shapes move within the steam.

At twelve-years old, with wiry limbs and unreliable voices that faltered when they needed them most, all they had was their bravado. That, and the stolen glances of immortal golden skin they’d trade later with the other village boys. Alex slipped words into his friend’s ear. “We’re just looking, not bothering anyone.”

Zak nodded satisfied, “how old do you think they really are?” His eyes locked themselves on the open window and the promising darkness within. They stole every splash of water, soft laugh, and glossy sheen on dark hair for themselves.

Alex didn’t get a chance to guess. A massive hand closed on his shoulder and hauled him up and onto his feet. Two manor folk loomed over Alex and Zak both bullishly built and frowning. Under the darkening evening, the two boys were marched back towards the yellow lights of the village, Alex spinning innocence as they went.

******

“Keep out of the way and don’t bother the manor folk,” The sailor snapped at Alex and pushed him to a section of railing. The small crew avoided the prow. There the brothers from the manor house looked out over the water. The shorter brother rolled his angular shoulders and the wind crashed down on the ship.

In his eighteen years living in the village that sat beneath and served the strange house, Alex had learned their names and habits. He knew who courted whom, who visited the village to fix fences and help harvest, who brought small festival gifts for the children, and who never left the strange mismatched place. The larger brother was Cole, broad of shoulder, jaw, and judging looks. The shorter was Aren, fair haired, who spoke and dressed with precision. Alex knew they didn’t know his name, none of them did.

The rigging creaked, the full sails cracked, and the entire sea seemed to beat at Alex’s skull as they darted forward into the open ocean. His knuckles were white on the rail, gripped tight lest the ship pitch him into the sea and the razor bits of rock hidden just beneath the water. Alex closed his eyes and imagined the yellow lanterns, lit one by one beyond the sharp island mountains.

*****

“And the manor folk? Do they really live forever?” The six-year-old asked Alex, a small finger tracing the pastel pictures in the book between them.

“Well,” Alex said, looking down at the curly mess of his son’s head and catching the inquisitive green eyes they shared. “I think so. The young ladies certainly stayed all dewy and bright like spring mornings. The men never stopped their brash pecking around like peacocks.”

His son chortled in the crook of Alex’s arm, attention darting between the stories on page and the ones hanging in the air.  The laugh was interrupted by a yawn and Alex drew up the blankets. “Why did you leave?” His son asked, sleepy and distracted by the illustrations of a fiery, armored woman next to her black-cowled, snow-haired sister. The boy turned the page to a verdant scene where a young druid wandered a forest path.

“Sometimes the island felt like a prison.” The honestly spoiled the air and Alex sighed. He quickly smiled and stood before his son could make anything more of the words. Alex bent forward, taking the book and tucking the six-year old into the blankets.  “There was no room for me there, an island so full of other people’s stories, I wanted to make my own. And so I have.” Alex tapped the tip of his son’s nose, causing the boy to snort.

Alex set the book aside. As his son yawned and turned over, Alex reached up to light the lantern hung in the window. With the soft yellow light keeping watch and the worst of the darkness away, Alex left his son’s room with a smile.

Perpetually late as usual, but not a thief this time. The line Sometimes the island felt like a prison. was taken by a few larcenous writers as part of the Legal Theft Project. See them below. 

A Mad Writer….Legal Theft Project: Practiced Escapes

An Animal Lover…. Favors

A Librarian … The Sea Serpent